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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Bear Paws and Northern Lights: My Time in The Last Frontier

…a memory of going North to the Future, in my past.

It is one of the great smug delights of my adult years that I sometimes have an opportunity to start a sentence with, "I worked in Alaska for 6 summers as a firefighter."  That is, like, the record-scratch conversation-killah to end all record-scratch conversation killahs in the dowdy midwest and people, let me tell you, I take full advantage.  I leave that job on my resume even though it was pretty much like being paid to go hiking, AND has literally nothing to do with my current job search, because it is just one of those things that make you distinctive in a pile of resumes.
Summa Cum Laude from MIT, eh?  Oh yeah?  Well top this, bitches!

But as distinctive as I ever could be, I could never hope to compare to actual Alaskans, who are a rare, rare breed of folk; I have many stories of the delightful iconoclasts and crusty pipeline pioneers and fire folk I met and/or worked with up there (not a one of whom would give Palin the time of day, I am quite sure), all of whom ensured that I would feel bittersweet pangs of nostalgia every time I watched "Northern Exposure."  And among some of the most distinct of this breed are Debra and Dave, who adopted me, in a manner of speaking, in the third year I was up there.

The heroes of this tale, snapped on a road trip to the Yukon.

In retrospect, Debra had probably decided that it was simply dangerously foolish for
a strange 21-year-old drifter, with no family or many friends to speak of in town, to live quite literally in a tent down by the river in the middle of town.  Unlike most sane people, however, Debra decided that the solution to this was that I should live in her house, though I was sight unseen and she was on vacation, and orchestrated this through my fire boss and her neighbor, Danny, who bundled up me and my belongings, dropped me at her house with instructions to feed the Siamese cat China and not allow the teenage son Josh to burn the house down with fireworks, noting Debra would return in a few weeks.  Which she of course did, and after our get-to-know-you chat, she decreed that she wasn't going to kick me out of the house that very evening, and that we could just see how things went.  And then I ended up staying another couple weeks (and, as I recall, either Dave or Danny ended up test driving the first car I ever bought: a Volvo, same as Debra) until I left for the winter, snow-birding back south; and then when I came back (in the Volvo) the following year, I once again ended up staying with 'the family', somehow insinuating myself into the plans to moose-proof the garden and go to a 4th of July picnic on the sandbar where I ate bear stew, and to cheer myself hoarse at daughter Tara's little league softball games and tag along with Josh and friends the night of their high school graduation;to collect roadside rock-slide boulders with Dave for his plan to build a retaining wall, and later that summer to dance madly to "Brown-Eyed Girl" at the county fairgrounds with Debra and the Wild Women of Delta.  And at the start of my final summer up there, it seemed I would be coming home to Debra and Dave, whether they wanted me there or not.

(Side-note:  it was another curious progression for me, in the summers I stayed up there, that the local folks who started out viewing me as a "tourist" and then as a "seasonal worker" had decided I was a "snowbird" by the end of my tenure there, meaning I was actually a resident of the town, but just left for the winter.  Lots of people did that; and it filled me with a comforting pride to know I had made it past being "seasonal," though I'm sure whatever dues I had paid have long expired by now and I'm back to being a tourist again.   C'est la vie - it is the way of things for us in the migrant workforce.  But for that shining moment, I too, was a crazy Alaskan, albeit one who never stayed past September, or came back before May.)

So for Debra and Dave, locked in the long dark days of mid-winter up in the Interior, I send an extremely belated, but no less heartfelt for that, THANK YOU for taking me so blithely into your fold; for the many drives you took me on and meals you fed me; for opening your home and your family to a weird drifter from Chicago all those years ago; for providing me entree into the creme de la creme of Deltana society, and for giving me a chance to be a snowbird, when in my heart of hearts I knew I was really just seasonal, at best.

And another thing - thank you for waking me up that one time so I could see the Northern Lights.  I feel lucky to have seen them; and in fact, is the inspiration for your quilt:

Bear Paws and Northern Lights: The Quilt

Okay, fine, the Aurora Borealis is not rainbow colored, as a rule - from what I recall of my Lights, they were yellow and green and arced in infinitely slow mystery across the night sky, while I stood agape on the deck in my jammie pants with no shoes on, shivering for 30 minutes of complete rapture.  But something about the jolly brightness of these batiks called to mind the colorful clan whose summers I commandeered, the batik wall-hangings that were the fruit of their enduring quest to find someplace warm to visit in the winter; their trip to some teeny South Pacific Island (was it Rarotonga?) and the Casa del Sol del Norte, a proposed retirement villa in Costa Rica or Mexico or someplace warm, Dave's endless search for the hottest of hot sauces, and their utter, utter delight in the "manic green" of the Alaskan summer and all the beauty and opportunity for outdoor adventure that entailed.  In any case, D and D, here's hoping a dose of brilliant batiks will bring a coconut-scented beach breeze to your frosty midwinter!  At least until the next trip to Dallas to see half the grandkids.

swatches on the design board

Working on the layout
 This pattern is by Robert Kaufman Company and is actually called "Garden Path", but it is comprised of these individual traditional units which are known appropriately, to my GREAT delight, as "Bear Paws".  HOW could I not make a color-wash quilt using BEAR PAWS for my Northern friends?  I could not not, that is how.

A Bear Paw unit, though whether this is Grizzly, Brown, or Polar Bear Paw is unknown
Bear Paws require approximately 1 metric fruck-ton of half-square triangles, one of the essential quilty building blocks, so that is what I spent a lot of time doing…..all the while reminiscing about my Alaskan family and what fun they always got up to - like that one time Debra and I played volleyball for so long that neither of us could walk up the stairs the next day.  Or when I paid Josh a beer for every squirrel tail he nailed to the door of the cabin I was trying to de-varmint  (those horrible creatures were overrunning everything, especially the root cellar.  Nasty beasts.)

LOTS of reminiscing time.

The backing was a strip of lovely pinky-purple fuchsia batik that had not fit in on the front side, atop the remainder of my precious cozy olive-green double gauze, which is so fab in a quilt I couldn't not use it.  The binding is another darker purple batik.

Simple quilting, to keep it warm and get er done

And the gray that I used on the front was not a solid, but another batik with tiny specks of white, light gray and blue, like the vast sky of the Last Frontier on a night when the Aurora was not around to overshine its more delicate beauty:

Dark Asphalt Splatter, South Sea Imports fabric.  I dunno, looks like the night sky to me.

And the label on this one - well for one thing, somehow it got HUGE.  It was supposed to be the Alaskan flag (the Big Dipper and the North Star, though MAN, stars are actually really hard to embroider, despite the practice I was getting with this and Brian and Sarah's label) and an homage to the motto "North to the Future" (something I would say, with relish, each year when it was time to go back) but my letters got bigger and my stars got farther apart and before I knew it, I had this giant label:


No one will ever accuse me of using tiny fonts. Except right here in this caption.

When Quilts Collide (careful where you walk)

So I have just heard that this has made it safely to the Last Frontier, where a piece of my heart is always swinging in the hammock on the old porch, eating cookie dough out of a tub, listening to tall tales, and laughing myself sick with the people that became my family, for a time, in those summers long ago.  I miss you guys all the time and I love you, and I hope to dance with you again sometime soon!


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